Scientists at the University of Adelaide's Australian Center for Ancient DNA said they sequenced DNA extracted from prehistoric human skeletons to discover maternal genetic lineages now carried by up to 45 percent of Europeans.
The findings pointed to major migrations from both Western Europe and Eurasia and signs of an unexplained genetic turnover about 4,000-5,000 years ago.
"This is the first high-resolution genetic record of these lineages through time, and it is fascinating that we can directly observe both human DNA evolving in 'real-time', and the dramatic population changes that have taken place in Europe," Adelaide researcher Wolfgang Haak said.
"We can follow over 4,000 years of prehistory, from the earliest farmers through the early Bronze Age to modern times."
The first farmers in Central Europe came via migration, beginning in Turkey and the Near East where farming originated, and arriving in Germany around 7,500 years ago, the researchers said.
Then there was an unexpected change in genetic lineages some three millennia later, they said.
"What is intriguing is that the genetic markers of this first pan-European culture, which was clearly very successful, were then suddenly replaced around 4500 years ago, and we don't know why," Professor Alan Cooper said. "Something major happened, and the hunt is now on to find out what that was."
"These well-dated ancient genetic sequences provide a unique opportunity to investigate the demographic history of Europe," Cooper said.
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